Last week brought news from the IndyCar world that was like a punch to the gut. It came as a shock to me that after they made good last season after several seasons of struggle that Newman Haas, one of my favorite teams in motor sports, shut down their IndyCar operation. There is no doubt that the team had seen lean times in recent years, but the 2011 season showed that the team was on an upswing. Veteran Oriol Servia and rookie James Hinchcliffe formed a great partnership and the team ended up “best in class” behind the behemoths of Ganassi and Penske. Sadly, it seems that economics finally caught up with Newman Haas; they cited financing as the reason they wouldn’t answer the bell in 2012.
My deep interest in IndyCar racing began at about the same time that Michael Andretti joined his father Mario Andretti at Newman Haas. I think that’s one of the reasons I became a fan of the team – there was just something cool about a father and son racing with the same team. The fact that the team was successful didn’t hurt either. When Michael Andretti left the team for his aborted F1 effort with McLaren and Nigel Mansell, one of my favorite F1 drivers joined the team, I was overjoyed. I have a die cast of Mansell’s Newman Haas K-Mart Havoline car carrying the championship “1” on top of my computer desk/amateur radio station. I was also thrilled when another one of my favorite drivers, Paul Tracy did some time with the team. The team’s success carried on with drivers like Christian Fittapaldi, Christiano DaMatta, and Sebastien Bourdais. While I wasn’t always a fan off all of their drivers, I always remained a Newman Haas fan.
Another reason I was a fan of Newman Haas was Paul Newman. I never have been a big movie or Hollywood fan but I was aware of Paul Newman’s success in sports car racing. Newman’s enthusiasm for racing was evident and I liked the way he and Carl Haas ran the team. Newman wasn’t a prima donna; he didn’t throw his fame around and generally remained out of the limelight the best he could given his high profile as a celebrity. They seemed to hire the best people they could find, give them the best equipment they could and let them get on with their jobs. From my perspective, they didn’t seem to micromanage their teams. Furthermore, Carl Haas and Paul Newman remained loyal to the CART/Champ Car series during the CART/IRL split. As teams like Ganassi and Penske shifted allegiances due to the lure of the Indy 500, Newman Haas remained in CART. The split resulted in the loss of sponsorship for Newman Haas, but Haas and Newman reached into their own pockets, spending their own money to keep the team alive.
When the split ended, Newman Haas fought to answer the bell, keeping at least one car on the grid before showing in 2011 that they may have been down but they weren’t yet out. Graham Rahal earned his first IndyCar victory in a Newman Haas car. Each year it appeared that their days were numbered but they still showed up. In 2011, they started with one car for Oriol Servia and quickly added a second for James Hinchcliffe. Both drivers were impressive. Servia finished 4th in points ahead of two of the Penske drivers! Hinchcliffe, despite not running a full season still claimed Rookie of the Year honors! Perhaps last week’s announcement wasn’t unexpected it was still a surprise; I was so looking forward to Newman Haas continuing their upward swing in 2012.
It later came out that although they wouldn’t be racing in IndyCar in 2012, Newman Haas wouldn’t be shutting the door on their operations. There are rumors of an ALMS program; given that Haas is the US distributor for Lola it wouldn’t come as a surprise. I just hope that Newman Haas surfaces somewhere and someday is able to return to IndyCar competition.